Determine fabric content with a detective kit

Sometimes fabrics aren’t well-labeled, even in the best of shops. Sometimes I find them in unusual places, like tag sales or consignment shops. I love a good hunt. I’m a fabric omnivore. If the fabric is the color/weight/weave I need for a project I use it. This upsets my purist friends but certainly makes my work . . . uh, distinctive.

Natural fabrics are my preference and I have gotten pretty good at guessing by touch and feel. But sometimes I am stumped. Polyesters are getting better and better. Some no longer feel like hard plastic. Some sweaters made of acrylics are hard to determine by the touch test.

I recently went on a shopping trip to New York City. Preparation included packing some unconventional items . . . my handy dandy fabric content detective kit.

Actually it’s just a disposable lighter or matches and a couple of four inch squares of white muslin in a sandwich bag. If a particular fabric is not well labeled or store help cannot answer my questions, I ask for a snippet. It’s an infrequent request and most sales staff are happy to help. That’s most . . . not all sales staff. Let’s just say the store salesman in the shop in New York City was having a cranky day. He looked at me as if I had two heads and then completely ignored me, not answering “yes” or “no” to my request for a swatch. You can’t win ‘em all.

Take your hard won fabric snip and step outside. This is a quick test to see if the sample is a natural fabric, a manmade fabric or a blend. Burn a bit of the corner of the fabric. Put out the flame almost immediately. You only need a bit of a burn for your observations not a conflagration big enough to roast marshmallows. And, let’s think. Standing on a street corner in NYC trying to light fabric afire . . . not good.

How does the fabric burn?
• Sputtering and hard to light, wool resists flame and self-extinguishes immediately when the flame source is removed.
Silk also burns slowly. Both smell like burning hair or feathers.
Cotton and linen burns slowly and steadily and smells of burning leaves.
Polyester sputters and leaves plastic behind. It smells sweet and puts off black smoke.
What does the ash tell you? Natural fabrics turn to black or gray powder when touched. The polyester leaves hard shiny beads behind.


Then it is time to see if the fabric sheds dye. Does the dye from the fabric rub off on other fabrics it comes into contact with? This is called crocking and can be a real problem. If the crocking is severe the fabric will leave color on anything it rubs against . . . other fabrics, upholstery, or even human skin, particularly when the weather is hot and humid. Take one of the muslin squares and rub the fabric in question. Does the color from the fabric rub off on the muslin? How easily? Prewashing fabrics does help this problem but often this fabric will looked faded after a trip through the machine. Crocking means a lot of surface dyes and sizing. When this is removed your fabric can look worn and tired. I avoid fabrics with a severe crocking problem. They are almost always lots of trouble. Even a bargain basement price can’t overcome really awful fabric problems.
I also have a roll up tape measure with me. I know the stores will lend you one but I like having my own. It’s handy to measure the repeat in a fabric or the size of a particular motif. I once got home with a gorgeous, wild fabric intended for a stack and whack-type quilt. Unfortunately the motifs I intended to use would have necessitated a ten foot square quilt. Waaaay to big for the kid’s quilt I had intended. Now I measure.
Some quilters take reducing glasses with them and even colored plastic value finders. I don’t need to. I am horribly nearsighted. I just take off my glasses. Instantly everything becomes blurry and the fabrics in question are reduced to color values. Need a handy way to audition fabrics for a project? Just squint.
Don’t worry squinting is a lot easier to do in a crowded fabric store than asking for swatches. Even cranky sales people feel obliged to help a “mature” shopper like me when she is squinting hard at the fabric bolts and bumping into things. I don’t mention it’s a test. And I let them carry the bolts I choose.
Enjoy the hunt.
Now, I have a question.
Where was the most unusual place you shopped for or discovered a great fabric find?
Let me know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *